National News

Should schools be able to question kids about bullying without a parent's consent?

Posted May 7, 2018 9:33 a.m. EDT

— Sharmia Wallace said she first heard about her son's bullying case after school district staff had already questioned him and finished an investigation.

The 6-year-old goes to Fairfield West Elementary. Because he is a minor, and out of respect for Wallace's wishes, WCPO is not using the boy's name.

He wasn't the target of a bully. Instead, Wallace said, her son was accused of being the bully: The principal told Wallace he'd shoved another student.

Wallace admits her son can be hyperactive. But until that call, she hadn't heard about the allegation against him.

"How can you question a 6-year-old without representation -- you know, an attorney, or his mom or his dad?" Wallace said.

The WCPO I-Team reviewed policies for the largest school districts in the Tri-State. We found many districts don't notify a child's parents until after a bullying investigation is complete.

An education attorney said those policies can leave families in the dark.

'A lot of gray area'

Wallace told the I-Team her son's teacher was supposed to tell her about the alleged bullying when it happened.

But that didn't happen.

According to a letter Wallace requested, the teacher simply dropped the ball.

Wallace said staff from the district office questioned her son without her knowledge.

"I was heartbroken because I felt like he wasn't protected, you know, and I'm his protection since he's only 6," she said.

Parents have criticized the Fairfield City School District for how it has handled past bullying cases. Three students from Fairfield Middle School have taken their own lives since late 2014. Their classmates and parents say all had been bullied.

The Fairfield Board of Education voted 4-0 last year to approve a district bullying and harassment officer, a new position created to "streamline efforts to address complaints of bullying and harassment," district spokeswoman Gina Gentry-Fletcher said.

Fairfield's bullying policy says the school usually notifies parents or guardians after the bullying and harassment officer verifies it's an actual case of bullying, according to state law. That means a student has engaged in acts of physical or emotional bullying against another student on more than one occasion.

In the case of Wallace's son, Fairfield City Schools technically did nothing wrong in how it notified her or handled the case.

Carla Loon Leader, an education attorney, believes that exposes a hole in Ohio's bullying law.

"It gives a lot of discretion and a lot of gray area on what schools are required to do and what parents are entitled to know," Leader said.

The I-Team also reviewed policies from these other districts:

-Cincinnati Public Schools

-Lakota Local Schools

-Mason City Schools

-Boone County Schools

-Campbell County Schools

-Kenton County Schools

-Lawrenceburg Community Schools

Only Campbell County and Lawrenceburg choose to immediately notify parents, of both the suspected perpetrators and victims, about any bullying investigation. The others wait until an investigation is over, depending on the findings.

"The law is not specific on when they're supposed to be notified," Leader said.

Why parents want to know

Logan Davidson was one of the Fairfield Middle School students who died from suicide. Janie Adkins, Logan's grandmother and legal guardian, told us last summer she was in the dark after he took his own life.

Adkins said she only learned about bullying from Logan's friends on the day of his memorial: They told her he killed himself because he'd been bullied, and that he'd stepped in and stopped bullies from picking on them, too.

She said Logan didn't show any signs of depression or other problems in the days and weeks before his death, except he started missing some homework assignments. But she said she's convinced he told someone he'd been bullied.

"I do believe he would have said something to someone whether it be another child or an adult," Adkins said. "He would have said something to someone there."

The I-Team previously uncovered evidence that shows bullying was a factor in Emilie Olsen's death. Olsen, who also attended Fairfield Middle School, shot herself in the head in December 2014. Her parents allege the district knew Emilie had been bullied and covered it up. The district has denied that allegation.

Superintendent Billy Smith declined the I-Team's request to interview him for this story. Through email, he referred us to the district's bullying policy and said he could not comment on individual cases:

First and foremost, I want to say that our staff members work very hard to ensure that each child's learning environment is safe, secure, and positive. I am proud of the work that our District has done and will continue to do in this area.

Every bullying allegation and investigation is unique. Our Board policies and regulations dictate how allegations are addressed and investigations are conducted. Our administrators consider the circumstances of each allegation and investigation when they make decisions about how to proceed appropriately. If an administrator is conducting an investigation and the student involved is not cooperative, the administrator proceeds in a manner that he or she thinks is best given the circumstances. Because our District is committed to being the very best it can be for our students and families, we are consistently evaluating our policies and procedures in regard to our daily practices.

We created the position of a Bullying and Harassment Officer to streamline activities, events, professional development, etc. Donna Martin currently serves as our Bullying and Harassment Officer. Over the course of this school year, Donna has made many community presentations in regard to bullying and harassment. In addition, she has visited each of our school buildings and conducted professional development seminars regarding bullying and harassment. We believe that this position and the work that has been done has made a positive impact on our buildings throughout the District.

What parents can do

Like Adkins and the Olsens, Wallace also feels she should know more about what happened with her 6-year-old son. But Leader said schools have discretion to question children without a parent or guardian: The school acts in loco parentis, or in place of a parent, while the child is in the building.

She doesn't know what staff asked her son.

"They said they can't release those questions," Wallace said.

Parents ought to remind their children they should respectfully ask for a parent, Leader said -- and of the child's right to remain silent during questioning.

"If you have a situation where 'I'm not gonna talk until my parents are here,' and the administrator continues to push, push, push, that's a big problem," Leader said.

Wallace has since had that conversation with her son. Leader also said Wallace did something else right: She asked for letters to document that her son's teacher failed to notify her, and that her son violated the bullying policy.

Many times, Leader said, schools advise staff to call parents but to avoid email or putting things in writing.

Parents can initiate a paper trail on their own:

"If you have a conversation with a school person, if you have a conversation with the principal at the school because they called you or you called them, after you hang up the phone, send them an email that says 'I just wanted to document the conversation we just had. You said this. I said this. This is what you said would happen. If this is not accurate, please let me know.'

"If they don't let you know than that is passive acceptance of what you're saying.

"If they do respond and correct you, then you've got something in writing that documents what happened," Leader said.

Sometimes, school districts claim they cannot release information to parents because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA. Leader urged parents to push back, possibly asking for redacted copies if necessary to protect another student's privacy.

Wallace now has to live with a decision she feels school officials made behind her back.

"It just hurts because my son is not a bully," she said.